Popular culture & dominant media

Definition: popular culture

Popular culture (or ‘pop’ culture) is a nebulous term that has been widely debated for years and varies by individual society, depending on the culture and traditions of each society. However, for purposes of this research, contemporary popular culture can be understood broadly as all values, beliefs, practices and products of a specific society (in this case North American society specifically, and the Western World in general). These practices and products include films (with an emphasis on Hollywood films), television, sports, fashion, and popular music (e.g. pop, country and R&B), as well as streaming services and social media that are usually distributed by dominant media (also referred to as mass or mainstream media) and consumed by a large portion of the general population. Although entertainment is purportedly the main purpose of popular culture, through the consumption of this ‘entertainment,’ popular culture also operates on other levels, shaping individual and societal values and beliefs that include the perpetuation and acceptance of ageism.

Historical and background information

In the 1800s, culture in Western society was separated into “high culture, that was an important aspect of the world of the wealthy and well-educated upper classes; and popular (or mass) culture, which was an essential part of the social life of working class people (Storey, 2009; Schuck, 2017). Popular culture in this context was seen as inferior to the interests, activities and practices of the upper-class elite who appreciated classical music, opera, theatre, ballet, literature, and fine art (displayed in museums, art galleries and in the homes of wealthy art patrons), all of which were seen as beyond the capacity of the working class to enjoy (Scott & Marshall, 2009). Popular culture on the other hand, was considered the domain of the large numbers of the working-class population who found their entertainment in music/dance halls, pantomime, folk art, mass-produced popular music of the day, Hollywood films, and popular fiction (or mass fiction), which included genres such as mystery, romance, science fiction, and fantasy (Storey, 2009). Some academics suggest that separation of popular culture from high-culture was a method of maintaining class boundaries in the 1800s-1900s, and in some ways, continues to support those class distinctions in contemporary society  (Bourdieu, [1984] in Storey, 2009).

However, the activities and practices associated with high culture or popular culture are not static. Over time, some of the activities or products that were initially considered the property of either high or pop culture have been assimilated into the other. For example, opera and classical music, once the sole domain of high culture, quickly found its way into advertising and popular films. Film examples include: Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries” which was used in a prominent scene in Apocalypse Now (1979), to Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” from his opera Turandot, which was used as background music to frame a scene in the Hollywood action film, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015), among others. But certain aspects of popular culture were also embraced as ‘high culture’ within a few decades of their creation in areas of art, music and film. A good example in film cross-over is the Hollywood Film Noir genre of films (1940s-1950s) that include films such as: Double Indemnity, 1944; They Live by Night, 1948; Kiss Me Deadly, 1955; Touch of Evil, 1958. These films were dismissed as B-movies when they were first produced and exhibited, but within 30 years the genre of Film Noir had been elevated to the world of ‘art cinema’ and integrated into the world of high culture (Bennett, in Storey, 2009, pg. 10).

Dominant media

Dominant media (also referred to as mass or mainstream media) generally refers to film, television (network and cable), text-based media, as well as Internet resources that are controlled by global or transnational corporations, and which reflect the interests and ideology of the corporations (Chomsky, 2008). The power of dominant media is now concentrated in the hands of only a small number of transnational corporations. In a new introduction to Manufacturing Consent: the political economy of mass media (2008) Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky point out that since 1990 nine transnational conglomerates now “own all of the world’s major film studies, TV networks, and music companies, and a sizable fraction of the most important cable channels, cable systems, magazines, major-market TV stations, and book publishers” (p. xiv). In May 2021, Amazon bought MGM, one of the Hollywood’s largest movie studios for $8.45 billion. The purchase of MGM gives Amazon access to the studio’s massive entertainment catalogue of 4,000 films (including the lucrative James Bond franchise) and 17,000 hours of TV for its video streaming service, Amazon Prime (CNN Business, May 26, 2021). This purchase gives one corporation and one man (CEO Jeff Bazos) an alarming amount of power and control over popular culture content and distribution..